Busting Two Myths about Learning Foreign Languages

Yesterday I was watching a YouTube video by Fingtam Languages (sorry dude, you rarely mention your real name)

Becoming Fluent book
Fingtam Languages on YouTube 

and he was talking about this book he’s been reading. Check his YouTube video channel and subscribe, he’s got tonnes of great information about language learning and linguistics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTefVVnFqyI&t=3s )Becoming Fluent book cover

Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). 

I decided to check its kindle version and the first chapter presents some of the fallacies regarding language learning.

I learned English, Spanish and French mostly as an adult – over 18 – yes, as a kid I had been exposed to English classes at school but had been taught mostly in Portuguese – I’d learned the verb to be, some vocabulary and some grammar rules but nothing much. The little Spanish I heard was from my Galician uncle who spoke some curse words at times (and my mom would also say some Spanish expressions such as – “me cago en la madre (I shit on your mother) and other niceties she had probably learned from my uncle (don’t ask me why – some family secrets are better left unturned).  When I was 11 or 12 I came across a French grammar book my older sister or brother had used in primary school (up to the early 70s  in Brazil, French was taught as the default foreign language instead of English). Of course from that exposure to French as a pre-teen I learned – je me lève  and je m’assieds (thank God that book had illustrations)

French conjugation
French conjugation of the verb to sit 

I can comfortably say that I really learned English and Spanish proper in my 20s and French in my 40s. Yes, my spoken French level is lower than my reading but just because I’ve had to use it much less – though I know about the importance of exposing myself to the language I don’t read much in French or listen to podcasts in French – sometimes I read some news stories or watch some TV5. But last year we were in the Côte d’Azur and I could survive and felt comfortable expressing myself in the French I knew.

So it’s time to bust some myths: 

Myth 1 – adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children 

Adults can and will learn, but differently from how children learn. First, ok… the child will acquire a better accent – thanks to their facial elasticity and also their lack of  fear/shame/anxiety of making mistakes in the other language. But… the adult has already gone through the process of learning their own language so they can use that experience in the new language learning process.  Ok, … as an adult you will have an accent, but hey, I’ve got news for you: everybody HAS ONE!. Also, unless you plan to be an undercover secret agent, why would you want to hide the fact that you’re from another country? Actually, that’s a bonus, at least you can speak  one more language.

Myth 2 – when learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

For years I subscribed to that school of thought that L1 would smother L2, therefore the former should be eliminated from the language class environment. Yes, it’s true that some students, if allowed to, will only use the L1 and talk to each other in that language. So the teacher must control its use in class but be mindful not to throw the baby away with the bath water.  Roberts and Kreuz say that the banning of L1 in the classroom “deprives adult  language learners of one of their most important accomplishments – fluency in their native language. Although it is true that one language is not merely a direct translation of another, many aspects of one language are directly transferable to a second language.” (1)

They add “… looking for places where concepts, categories, or patterns are transferable is of great benefit, and also points out another area where adult foreign language learners have an advantage over children. ” (1)

So if your’re trying to teach someone or learn yourself a new language, don’t lose heart. It can be done. Just adjust the methods and tools and be realistic on your goals.

Happy learning,

Cheers,

Mo

 

(1) Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (The MIT Press) by Richard Roberts (Author), Roger Kreuz (Author). The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass./ London, England.

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Learning through osmosis

Let me cut to the chase and tell you that you can get a disease or infection by contact with a wound or a cut, through blood, saliva and other bodily fluids. You won’t, I repeat, YOU WILL NOT learn another language just by shaking hands with a language teacher or touching the dictionary on the screen of your cellphone, ok? 🙄

Well… as inane as it may sound, that’s how many students approach their decision to learn a second or foreign language. Let me give you an example:

One day, Bratislav* (not his real name) wakes up, stretches out and says to himself:

I need to improve my English (or whatever language he might think is important for him). “I’ll call this teacher who my colleague is having classes with (or should it be “whom”) schedule a start date, settle on payment (hmm, maybe he’ll be so amazed at my brain, he’ll be willing to teach me for free 😋) and I’ll be on my way towards my destiny to conquer the world.”

But poor Brat also thinks that he won’t have to do anything to make some progress. No homework. No practice. No class attendance (I kid you not, Virginia).

In 1-1 classes, the client agrees to buy a chunk of time from his teacher, be it 45 minutes, one hour, or whatever. So he must make every effort to use that time as well as possible. Time flies as the saying goes and it slips through our fingers like sand. When the student can’t or won’t have class at the agreed time for whatever reason, he expects the teacher will rebottle that time that has gone away and offer him again. Or at least offer a discount of the total value of the classes.

We as teachers have to look hard into ourselves and ask: why are we teaching? What do we want? How can we achieve our goals and our students’ goals? And sometimes we come across tough choices to be made: should I be punching the head of this or that student who’s more dead than a door nail?

During a year-end evaluation, which I had to sit next to Brat and answer it with him,

– he would not have answered the survey on his own in a million years, he told me he would like to improve his writing. Great. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or not… because he won’t have time to write anything and he doesn’t want to spend 15 minutes in class quietly writing an email, or translating a short text for practice.

So… Brat, I only have one thing left to do: I will terminate you as a “virtual” student and when you sort out what you want and how you will get there then and only then you may call me again. Or not.

I’ll be waiting at the restaurant round the corner with a Chicken Parmigiana plate balancing on my head while watching Jane Fonda work out on YouTube🤪

Cheers,

Mo

Are There Any Bad Students?

First and foremost, let’s cut that politically correctness crap that anyone can learn a second language and that there are no bad students. That’s not true. I’ve learned it the hard way.

I’m not talking about those individuals who are pure evil… What I’m just saying is that some people should focus their efforts on something attainable.

Let’s face it: some people are great learners. Others are average. Others suck at that. I was great at History/Geography and sucked at Math. Great at English and sucked at Portuguese literature. That depends on:

Personality

Commitment

Intellect

that is how your brain works. Image result for brain clipart

 

So… what makes a bad student?

1. Has No realistic goals – expects to be speaking and understanding everything in 6 hours/days/weeks.

2. Passively receives information and believes that the teacher will concoct a magic potion that will make them learn – doesn’t know why they’re learning.

3. Waits for the teacher to present interesting things for him to watch, read and listen to (during class time, of course)

4. Never reviews or records any lesson material

5. Displays weak learning skills – won’t take notes but doesn’t hav learns r-e-a-l-l-y slowly, if ever.

6.  Feels Forced to learn

The positive point is that bad learners can be converted into good learners.

First, find out what makes them tick. What motivates them (unless they’re clinically depressed – then advise them to seek medical and psychological care).

Assess their needs and their learning strengths and weaknesses – do they have a good memory? Are they slightly dyslexic? Do they need speech therapy? How’s their hearing?

Empathize

Provide opportunities for success.

Cheers,

Mo

Motivating ESL Students

Picture this:

It’s Monday morning.

First class at 7:30am.

Student A had an intense weekend, traveled, returned home late Sunday night and Monday morning he has to be ready for his class first thing in the morning. The teacher walks in and starts talking in English … the student who’s been speaking Portuguese all week hears the sounds but can’t make heads or tails of what’s being said past “how are you?”

Next, while correcting homework the teacher sees the student still having trouble expressing basic sentences – and can’t remember basic vocabulary he’s already seen before.

He can’t remember how to say in English:

Classe média (middle class)

Saudade (to be missing someone)

Poucas casas (a few houses)

Move on to the following student B – she is shown a 10 minute Ted Talk video on global population growth – and then says she’d fallen asleep half way through the clip.

Then student C waltz in. He has just had lunch and didn’t sleep very well last night… guess what happened?

So lessons to be learned:

1. Review, review, review! Grammar points and vocabulary.

2. Break video sessions into smaller chunks. Ask comprehension questions to help student remain focused.

3. Bring very strong black coffee in a thermos.

Cheers,

Mo

Developing digital competence in ELT

“As teachers, we are bombarded with the urge to use the latest, shiny technology,  we must keep our fingers on the pulse of technology.” Steve Taylor-Knowles

In other words, we must know how to use technology – not a choice anymore, but we need to know how to apply the necessary criteria to choose what to adopt or discard.

Teachers are a very complex sort of animal. On the one hand, we are open-minded and willing to learn. On the other hand, we’re afraid of change, including new technologies, feeling burdened by having to learn a new tool, which might result in more work, more time requirements,  more tasks and chores.

Our real challenge is to go digital.

laptop technology ipad tablet
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

1. Digital course management

Teachers have to get familiar with different learning management systems (LSM).

We can build data on students. What’s been done? What scores? What new plans or strategies?

2. Course Content Delivery

Resources: digital content allows for more material than what would be possible in a physical context. Both teacher and students can and should use their mobile phones as great learning tools.

3. Digital Competence

Literacy – today (August 06, 2018), the Brazilian Newspaper O Estado de São Paulo published a poll informing that 3 out of 10 Brazilians are functionally illiterate. Now, how many teachers are  functionally  digitally illiterate today?

So… dear teachers, embrace technology and start learning.

box business celebrate celebration
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

Can anyone learn a language online?

Can anyone learn a foreign language online and free? Yes, you can!

“Wait a minute”, you might say … are you telling me I can learn any language online? For real? Yes, you can.

But …. of course, there had to be a BUT! The internet is full of free pages to learn a foreign language, but not all are reliable, either because they don’t offer a program structured to your level, or because the method presented doesn’t suit your learning personality. Moreover, online learning is not the ideal medium for everyone, let alone those who are not disciplined and organised.

As a teacher, of course I stand for classes with a teacher. That’s the best choice. But not always the feasible one.

How can you learn at home?

Firstly, find a way of motivating and organising yourself. Tell others what you’re doin; that should keep your accountable, at least initially. Secondly, set up a list of resources for your learning process.

1. Reading:

Google up easy reading texts in your target language. Read a paragraph of a news story. A fairy tale. A piece of the transcript of an interview of a politician, artist, footballer or any other you might fancy and find interesting. Check the pronunciation, the vocabulary.

2. Watching

YouTube has tons of videos in your target language, not necessarily about learning the language. But clips of news or documentaries are great starting points.

 

3. Listening 

Focus on listening to news and documentaries that have a clearer speech.  Podcasts are a great source of listening material that you can download and listen to anywhere, anytime.

 

4. Speaking

This requires some courage. Dare to speak. Skype provides a language exchange forum for you to connect with people around the world. 353E9122-4E78-498C-A9B5-720CF4C30F01

You see? As I told you before, free online language learning is posssible but no magical solution. You’ll have to apply yourself to it regularly, especially if your goal is to learn “fast”.

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

Why Teach Pronunciation ? (Or not?)

Quite often teachers of English as a Foreign Language find themselves between a rock and a hard place concerning teaching pronunciation. If they’re native speakers they hesitate in constantly correcting their students fearing they’ll pass an overbearing image and many times thinking … “well… I can understand them … whatever”. If the teacher is a nonnative speaker of English they might feel insecure about their own pronunciation or even worse… they might not be aware of the proper pronunciation of specific sounds in English which are different from their mother tongue. 60984E2A-14DC-40E6-A3B4-002A9032AABF.jpeg

So… why bother teaching pronunciation?

Students want and need to speak clearly.

Their phonological awareness has an impact on all areas of their language learning besides speaking: reading, writing, vocabulary, etc

But what’s the right pronunciation? What’s a standard accent? British RP? Only 3% of Brits actually speak it. American Midwestern? What about Mississippi or Alabama? How about global English?

That’s why it’s important to know why your students are learning English.

The teacher must then focus on speech comprehension rather  on the student’s accent being good, bad or proper.

How to do it? Teaching pronunciation works best a little during every lesson instead of once a week or whatever frequency students have. C7047EE5-CB8D-4F9B-A70F-BE4A4AA74861.jpeg

“The teacher must”, as Richard Cauldwell  wrote, ‘focus on:

the greenhouse: isolated words.

the garden: mixing and growing words together, linking words.

The jungle: where everything is mixed”

The best way will be to integrate pronunciation with other skills and lots of repetition (practice).

In conclusion, our insecurity about the way we speak can be managed by raising our awareness and practicing to the student’s heart’s content.

Cheers,

Mo

N.B – Many thanks to Laura Patsko with her great YouTube videos on the subject of pronunciation – https://youtu.be/yyga6vIAroE